It was with a good deal of dread that I picked up Red Sonja: Birth of the She-Devil #1 and the reason for this was because Luke Lieberman was the writer. Lieberman, for those who don’t know, is President of Red Sonja, LLC and editor of many of the Red Sonja comics published ever since Dynamite Entertainment picked up the license nearly 15 years ago.
Nobody has done more than Lieberman behind the scenes to restore Sonja to a place of prominence in the world of comics and for that he is to be applauded. Sadly, his output as a writer has been decidedly mixed in quality and the response to much of his writing inspired the fan theory (originally put forth following Gail Simone’s excellent Legends of Red Sonja mini-series) that readers were free to ignore any Red Sonja story which didn’t fit their personal view of the character, if any of the details were contradictory.
This idea empowered writers to tell the stories they wanted and readers to pick and choose which tales fit their own vision of Sonja’s character. Don’t like Gail Simone’s origin story for Sonja where she spent three years in the gladiator pits of the King of Zamora? Ignore it. Don’t like the new Mark Russell series where the Emperor of Zamora is fighting Queen Sonja of Hyrkania? Ignore it. That said, I have the feeling not many fans will be ignoring Birth of the She-Devil.
As Birth Of The She Devil opens, we are informed that Sonja is 18 years old and she is already a figure of legend and terror. After a lengthy overture which recreates Sonja’s first origin story (killing a king who has it in mind to enslave her) and establishing her as a lusty, hard-drinking force of nature, we get down to business and Lieberman’s actual plot. Sonja is looking for a missing friend, who has been abducted by Raka – a warlord who devotes his conquests to the god of Chaos and Slaughter. She is joined in this quest by Ozzyus, the thief and mercenary who found a young Sonja and took her in shortly after she killed the soldiers who murdered her family. Ozzyus also serves as the story’s narrator.
In the past my main issue with Lieberman’s writing was that Sonja’s character always seemed secondary to whatever story he wanted to tell. To give one example, he wrote a number of stories pitting Sonja against his version of Thulsa Doom, who was based less on any previous interpretation of the character and more Lieberman’s own ideas for an awesome anti-hero sorcerer. It was, perhaps, not a coincidence that Lieberman had acquired the rights to a Thulsa Doom solo movie and was trying to get it produced at that time. Lieberman also had an unfortunate habit of randomly choosing names from the Robert E. Howard cannon and placing them into his stories to make them more authentic to the world of Hyboria.
Thankfully, Lieberman’s writing seems to have improved in recent years, as has his portrayal of Sonja. The focus of the story here is on Sonja and Sonja alone and the way she is written is reminiscent of Gail Simone’s run, with a Sonja who is downright ribald and can hold her own with any man when it comes to drinking, cursing and screwing. Unfortunately, Lieberman’s random pillaging of the Conan mythos is still apparent, with the chaos god Raka worships being identified as Bel. In the original Robert E. Howard stories, Bel was the god of thieves and identified by Conan as one of the few good gods in Queen of the Black Coast.
While I may have issues with the writing and research, I find no fault in the artwork. Sergio Davila is rightly regarded as one of the best sword-and-sorcery artists in the business and his work here is a prime example of why that is so. I’ve greatly enjoyed his previous work on Red Sonja, Conan the Slayer and the main Swords of Sorrow series. Davila draws a fantastic action sequence and manages the impressive feat of drawing a Sonja who is powerful and sensual, without indulging in gratuitous cheesecake. Backed by the colors of Ulises Arreola, this is one fantastic looking book.
Overall, Red Sonja fans will be pleased by this mini-series and newcomers to the legend of the She-Devil with a Sword will find this to be a spirited introduction to the queen of sword-and-sorcery. The only ones who will want to give this a miss are those who don’t like low fantasy and high adventure or Howardian purists who will not stand for the good name of Bel being besmirched by a lawyer.